Saturday, August 20, 2016

With New Appointment, Russia’s Education Ministry Becomes a ‘Commisariat of Enlightenment’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 20 – Following the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin disbanded the ministry of education and created in its stead, the Commissariat of Enlightenment, a structure that was more concerned about promoting an ideological message than with the development of scholarship.

            Now, with the appointment of Olga Vasilyeva yesterday as minister of education, the Kremlin appears to have decided to do much the same thing, a prospect that has already disturbed, even enraged liberals but that Russian nationalists and the Orthodox Church are welcoming with enthusiasm (

            Writing in “Vzglyad,” Petr Akopov argues that “the replacement of the minister of education is not an ordinary shift of one bureaucrat for another” but rather means that “a second agency of the so-called social block is now headed not by a bureaucrat but by someone for whom meaning is more important than form” (

            Until her appointment yesterday, he continues, Vasilyeva was known only by a narrow circle of historians of the Russian church and by those who studied under her at the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service and at the Sretensk Spiritual Seminary. But now her writings have attracted the attention of all those concerned with the future of the country.

            Some of her remarks are truly disturbing – she has praised Alexander III to the skies and said that the number of victims of Stalin’s GULAG has been “exaggerated” – and she has been criticized for that. But what is important about her appointment is what it says about where Vladimir Putin wants to take the country not just in the immediate future but long term.

            What is happening with her appointment, Akopov says, is “historically logical.”  Ideologically motivated people, “people with clearly expressed patriotic views,” are displacing the technocrats and thus are now in a position to promote their views among all strata of the Russian population.  They are people, he says, “who are certain of Russian strengths.”

            While Akpov certainly does not intend it, his comments about Vasiliyeva’s appointment and how the echo the Stalinist period are even more worrisome. He notes that she has studied “the period when Stalin restored the patriarchate and returned to the Church part of the churches” which had been closed and against whose priests the Bolsheviks had visited repression.

            That period, the Moscow commentator says, was the first when the Russian leadership tried to bring back together the reds and the whites. “Now,” he writes, “Russia is experiencing a period that is in many regards similar,” one in which “the russophobic liberal years” are being replaced by patriotic ones with a positive image of all of Russia’s history.

            Akpov suggests that it was certainly “not accidental” that Vasiliyev moved into the government’s department of culture in 2012 and into the presidential administration a year later, precisely the time when Putin was launching his “sgtruggle for the past, that is, for the future of Russia.”

            If she remains true to her calling, Akopov argues, then “in our schools will take place a revolutionary turn to the side of enlightenment” rather than education. And he points out that “earlier,” that is in the 1920s, what is now called a ministry of education was called the commissariat of enlightment.

            Serious scholarship, support for teachers, and “the rebirth of the best traditions of the higher schools” are all important for Russian education. “But,” and this is the important thing as far as Akopov and presumably Vasilyeva’s sponsors are concerned, “without an understanding of who we are, where we have come from and where we are going, all this will be senseless.”

            There is of course one difference from Putin and Vasilyeva’s ministry of enlightenment Lenin and Lunacharsky’s commissariat of enlightenment and Putin and Vasilyeva’s variant.  The former was charged with fighting the obscurantism and backwardness of Russian Orthodox civilization; the latter is clearly intended to promote exactly those values.

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